K J’s review published on Letterboxd:
“Forgive me Ju-yeon. I wasn't there for you, always late, and never there for you. But... I promise you this. I'll make him pay for... your pain.”
I Saw The Devil follows an insurance sales agent, Kim Soo-hyeon who sets out to get revenge after his fiancée is raped and murdered but in doing so, enters a deadly game of cat and mouse with her killer, Kyung-chul.
Writers Park Hoon-jung and Kim Jee-won, who also directed the film, craft an immaculate screenplay that never falters in any aspect.
From Kim Jee-won’s simple opening shot of the film, I was hooked and knew that I was in for a special kind of film. The opening shot of the film, leading into the opening sequence was truly a perfect way to grab the viewer's attention, and let them know what type of film they’re going to get. The viewer sees how Kyung-chul’s antagonist operates and what he does to his victims. However, Jee-won knows not to show all of his cards within the opening sequence and lets the film become progressively tougher to watch, while simultaneously more engrossing as the film plays on.
One of the aspects that makes this film so special is how real everything looks and feels. Kyung-chul is a spine-chilling villain because people like him actually exist in the world, and could be someone down the street or someone you know. In addition, the practical effects are handled superbly, which adds to the film’s brutality. Obviously the actors aren’t actually getting a screwdriver stabbed through their hands, or grabbing knives with their bare hands, but producers Kim Hyun-woo, Kim Jung-hwa, Kim Jae-young, Cho Seong-won, and production designer Jo Hwa-seong all made everything look as realistic and authentic as possible. The production team truly did a miraculous job at making a six million dollar film look and feel as if it had the budget of a Michael Bay movie.
The next aspect that adds to this film is the acting. While I’m not too familiar with the cast, I can confidently say that everyone delivers great performances. However, the two leads of Lee Byung-hun as Kim Soo-hyeon, and Choi Min-sik as Kyung-chul are amazing.
Byung-hun is truly captivating and manages to do so without a lot of dialogue, much of his performance comes from body language and his eyes. Byung-hun’s eyes are truly something to behold, not since Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises have I seen someone do so much acting with their eyes and perform it that well. We see all the anger, despair, and sadness in Soo-hyeon’s eyes. We also see a man wanting to cry and let out all of his pain but holding it back - like a dam holding back a river, and it’s all conveyed through his eyes and facial expressions.
Choi Min-sik as Kyung-chul also delivers another astounding performance. In fact, his performance is done so well that it’s borderline frightening! While Lee Byung-hun uses facial expressions and his eyes, Min-sik is more animated and lively. He manages to capture the look of a truly sinister human being through his eyes, but he is also constantly yelling and expressing his emotions. I understand that the screenplay wants the characters to be exact opposites, but I found it fascinating how both the actors truly were opposite from each other. Some films have characters written as exact opposites but the acting styles of the leads don’t fully capture it to the extent that’s intended. Both Choi Min-sik as Kyung-chul and Byung-hun as Kim Soo-hyeon have managed to deliver performances that I would include in my top 20 performances of all time.
Another aspect that adds to this film tremendously is the score. The composer, known as Mowg, graces this film with a truly remarkable score. The score adds to every scene perfectly, and does a wonderful job at evoking an emotional response from the viewer. Many films have a tendency to overuse or underuse their scores, but this is not one of those. There are times where no score is used and the silence is used to create tension for the scene, and other times when the score is used to amplify the tension. What makes Mowg’s score standout is how it makes its presence known without boasting or going unnoticed. While I do find some other scores more memorable, this is one of those rare times where the score, much like the rest of the film, is flawless. Aside from the score, the sound team of Romain Bigorgne, Choi Tae-young, Gang Hye-yeong, Dang-Han kim, and Park Yong-gi also do a great job at balancing the action, dialogue and score, so that the score and action sounds never overpower the dialogue, which is something a lot of American movies tend to suffer from.
Last but most certainly not least, is Kim Jee-woon’s directing. Jee-won may not frame scenes as well as Bong Joon-hoo in Memories of Murder, but he certainly knows what camera angles to use to add to the emotional responses of the viewer. There is one camera shot where we get a closeup of Kyung-chul licking his lips and playing with his tongue in excitement while driving a car, and that may not sound exciting, but given the context of the scene and the film as a whole, it definitely adds to the horrendous lack of morality Kyung-chul’s character has for other human beings.
As mentioned above, the opening shot in the car was one of the more captivating car shots I’ve seen, and there are plenty of other moments where Jee-woon uses the camera instead of the actors to captivate the viewer.
Although the only movie I’ve seen of Jee-won’s before this was the 2013 action flick The Last Stand, I do not think it’s a stretch to say that I Saw The Devil is his masterpiece. There are times where his, along with cinematographer Lee Mo-gae’s camera work, rivals that of Joon-hoo’s, in his masterpiece Memories of Murder and in my review, I had the utmost praise for the camera work used in that film.
While I Saw The Devil has a plot that we’ve all seen and heard of before, the way the brilliant screenplay lets everything unfold, makes it so that you intake this film as an experience, rather than merely watching a movie. There are times where a scumbag gets their wrist broken or has something else grotesque happen to them, and because of the brutality of the film you can’t help but to wince in pain for them despite their awful nature. The exquisite screenplay married with the masterful direction creates a rare instance where, despite a familiar story, the viewer feels like they’ve witnessed something they’ve never seen before.
“Your nightmare is only getting worse”
Overall, my personal rating on this not so family friendly film is a perfect 10/10.
Park Hoon-jung and Kim Jee-won’s I Saw The Devil is truly an astounding accomplishment in the crime thriller sub-genre. Although the treatment of women in the film is a little overboard at times, it does feel necessary within the realm of this film. Additionally, Hoon-jung, Jew-won, and Min-sik all deliver one of the most terrifying and memorable cinematic villains, as well as a haunting ending in some of the finest cinematic storytelling I’ve ever seen!
Thank you for reading